The Case for Background Knowledge

Last week’s blog post hit a nerve for some. We wrote about developing and using Text Dependent Questioning, which, at its core focuses students on being able to deeply analyze text regardless of one’s background knowledge. We do know that activating background knowledge is a sound research-based strategy to assist students with reading comprehension, so why Text Dependent Questioning if it flies in the face of that tried-and-true strategy? As with many things in teaching, there is a place for it.

The fact is that on the Smarter Balanced Assessment (and in their reading lives in general), our students may very well encounter topics and text they have neither seen before nor have had any experience with, so Text Dependent Questioning is a way of helping students get to the depth of knowledge they will need to perform proficiently on demand as well as to become lifelong readers.

Building Background Knowledge:

Robert J. Marzano’s understanding of building background knowledge is extensive. We don’t pretend to do justice to his expertise here, but you can read his book: Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement (ASCD, 2004). He discusses the techniques of Direct and Indirect models of building such background knowledge. Direct development includes providing students experiences such as field trips to museums, theaters, parks/natural areas and building mentorships with adults. Easier said than done in the reality of ever-shrinking resources. With that in mind, he also discusses the viability of indirect sources through multiple exposures to content in different modes, connecting content to real life (through stories, anecdotes, scenarios, video), vocabulary acquisition, and conversation.

Activating Background Knowledge:

As background knowledge continues to be developed, teaching students the richness of bringing their own histories/experiences or the encounter of another media piece to topics/texts helps students make sense of new material. Strategies to activate prior knowledge are transferable from text to text. As Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis note in Strategies That Work (Stenhouse 2000), “…stories close to [students’] own lives and experiences are helpful for introducing new ways of thinking about reading”(68). This is true whether students are encountering fiction or informational text. Harvey and Goudvis, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, among others uphold three means of activating connections: Text-to-text, Text-to-Self, and Text-to-World.

In Text-to-Text connections, the reader draws upon prior reading (which can include audio and visual as well as print) to develop understanding. In Text-to-Self connections, the reader draws from his/her own experiences to help develop understanding of the new text. Text-to-World connections have readers draw on culture and traditions to enhance understanding.

Essential questions are great catapults into activating background knowledge in the classroom:

  • Text-to-Text: In science, for example, if we consider what the costs and benefits of genetic engineering, students may draw upon an experience with a text like Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, where a young girl is conceived as a bone marrow match for her older sister who suffers from Leukemia.
  • Text-to-Self: In social studies, if we consider the cost of conformity vs. nonconformity while examining the Civil Rights Movement, many students may be able to draw upon a personal (self) experience of having conformed to fit in to a community.
  • Text-to-World: In language arts, when reading a piece of fiction set in an unfamiliar country, students could research the culture, customs, and traditions of the area.

Building background knowledge and activating it in students has a significant place in helping students develop as lifelong readers and informed members of society. How do you build/activate background knowledge in your classroom?


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